By the time the ball reached the back of the net, Amy Rodriguez already was sprinting toward the northwest corner of Rio Tinto Stadium.
Not everything about the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 2-1 exhibition victory over Canada was perfectly scripted, but the response to the winning goal certainly went according to plan Saturday. Rodriguez joined several teammates in pretending to make snow angels in a circle, reprising a choreographed celebration from two years ago in genuine snow on this field.
This time, the activity barely registered on the pristine playing surface. But the U.S. women definitely made a lasting impression on a hot, windy afternoon.
This is Utah’s team now, headed to next month’s Olympics in London. The send-off game was memorable from start to finish, while furthering the bond between Utahns and these players.
The snow angel scheme was "a collaboration in the locker room, ahead of time," Rodriguez said. The celebration surprised coach Pia Sundhage, who could only smile and say, "It’s fun to be around this team, I’ll tell you that."
Abby Wambach described the plan as a tribute to the few thousand fans who came to Rio Tinto during that snowstorm of March 2010, when her goal beat Mexico 1-0. "Salt Lake City fans are special," Wambach said. "They get the game. They showed up today [16,508], and that was our celebration with them, to show how much we care about them."
How could you not love this team?
The Americans played their way into a lot of hearts last July, when Wambach’s tying goal in stoppage time enabled them to inspiringly beat Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals in Germany. But then they blew two late leads in losing to Japan in the finals. That defeat will hang over them at least until the Olympics, where a gold medal would "make it a little bit easier," Megan Rapinoe said.
Ever since that World Cup drama, the Americans have enjoyed support that "shows how far the women’s game has come," goalkeeper Hope Solo said.
That was evident in Sandy, where fans Rodriguez described as "enthusiastic" and "animated" were treated to a game that was an exhibition in name only. Knowing this was their last pre-Olympic competition, the teams battled for 90-plus minutes in the heat and altitude.
The U.S. team dominated the first half and could have led far more than 1-0, but missed some scoring chances. As the clock wound down in a tie game, the Americans went to an aggressive 3-4-3 formation that led to the winning goal, with Rapinoe’s cross knocked around between a defender and Wambach in a scramble. The ball floated to Rodriguez, who volleyed it into the open net, concluding a sequence that made her say, "It was like, ‘How could you miss it?’ "
Rodriguez described Canada’s surprising level of resistance as "a perfect pre-Olympic game for us," while the showing left just enough room for improvement. Speaking for the defense, Solo was disappointed that her team allowed a goal for a fourth consecutive game, even while winning by a combined 13-4.
Wambach lamented all those missed opportunities, rationalizing that finishing such plays is "the last thing that comes," she said. "We hope to not turn that thing on until the first game against France."
That’s July 25, when the Americans open the Olympics at a satellite soccer venue in Glasgow, Scotland.
Whatever happens in the UK, Utahns will have an emotional investment in this team. The U.S. players made sure of that Saturday, in the make-believe snow in Sandy.
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.